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Reflection on Nigerian Political Systems

May 31, 2009

Since assumption of office on January 20, 2009, U.S  President Barack Obama has consistently pointed to the loopholes in the system of accounting in US government which has allowed contactors, speculators and greedy public servants to escape with tax payers money. Just a few weeks ago, THE Daily Telegraph of the UK came with  startling revelations published in its May 8 and 9, 2009 editions about how some British MPs have undermined the taxpayers and made all sorts of ridiculous and unjustified claims, including using taxpayers money to subsidize mortgage, furnish their houses more than twice,  and so on. This has been a result of what Sir Hugh described as lack of moral leadership which has resulted in the manipulation of the rules.

There has been a raging debate since the demise of the Second Republic regarding what kind of political system best suits Nigeria. The Political Bureau Report 1987  was more concerned about how best the interest of the people could be served and through what kind of ideological framework, hence it recommended socialism and a mass mobilization of the people towards achieving that goal-this led to the establishment of MAMSER.  In the end, MAMSER served the ideological objective of consolidating military rule.

Much later under the National constitutional Conference and more seriously under the Obasanjo-created National Constitutional reform Conference, the issue of political system arose. Many of the old guard, who participated in the politics of the First Republic canvassed  a return to the Parliamentary system of government, they said it is less expensive, more accountable and more rooted to the people. In the end, the Constitution Reform Conference sang its own nunc dimitis because it mishandled the Resource Control matter while trying to smuggle in the “Third Term Agenda”. It is apparent that if the Conference had held the delegates of the south-south with some care and respect, and were willing to engage in trade-off with them, perhaps, I repeat, perhaps, the Conference may have been able to get the roof on term limit removed. Again, this is a tall speculation to which there is not  much evidence to support.

Given the conduct and behavior of politicians and the way political parties and politics is conduct in Nigeria, we are again brought to the crucial issue of what political system best suits Nigeria. There is no two similar democracies anywhere in the world. Each democracy is played out, influenced and conducted in the context of its historical specificity and cultural milieu.

Nigeria has tried both the Westminster and US Presidential models. Both have failed us for obvious reasons-anti-system players, incongruent political structures and superfluous superstructures They failed us not because they are bad systems but because they are  also systems that we inherited without any attempt to adapt them to our culture, values and peculiarities as a people. It is not the constitution per se  that will determine how a people behave.

Coming from a lawyer, such an assertion may sound outrageous and outlandish. Yes, it is the custom, tradition and values passed on through generations that will determine how people behave. It is the values taught to children in their homes, schools churches and mosques that will resonate in making a constitution to work.  Do we have the requisite attitude and disposition to make the constitution work? The constitution  is an abiding document that regulates and mediates, rewards and punishes. It is not the duty of a constitution to teach good conduct or good attribute-the family, school, religious group all hold that moral responsibility. However, it is the duty of the constitution to reward good conduct and punish bad conduct.

Many of our politicians have internalized and institutionalized the culture of impunity not because they do not know what is good or bad, but because they believe that  you can get away with bad conduct. They know  that it is easier to escape with bad conduct than for good conduct to be rewarded. They have come to realize that materialism is what counts in our society. They have realized that those who can rent a battalion of thugs and unleash violence and disappear with ballot boxes are the ones who are easily rewarded. Society often absorbs and reintegrates such people even when they know full well that their political antecedents are reprehensible and objectionable.


It may therefore be true that the Presidential system of government is more expensive to operate, not with the retinue of Advisers and Assistants that come with it, and the indefensible allowances that public officers often claim. However, what is important is whether a public officer truly has the mandate of the people, whether a public officer is accountable,  whether a public officer is able to ensure public service delivery. The political behaviour of Nigerian politicians and followers must change. If there is no attitudinal change in us, no political system will work-whether it is constructed by Angels or in paradise- that will not make it work.

How  can we cultivate the right political attitude? This must start with where we work, where we live, and within our families. Two principal factors are necessary to construct the right political behavior, these are best practices and core values. Every family, every organization every religious group must define its modus operandi and modus vividendi. They must adhere to their core values as something sacrosanct or holy. This will result in accountability on the part of everybody, it will also result in responsibility and mutual respect.  This will make overall organizational goals achievable and realizable, and it will put every body in  the same boat of trying to realize organizational and collective goals through decent and permissible means.

Political parties must internalize best practices and core values. This is  the best way to achieve leadership goals and to inspire groups and society. This is the  only way that accountability and sensitivity to the public good can be upheld or realised. What are people concerned about? They are not so keen about the name of the  political system, they are not enthusiastic about the origin of the political system, they are not anxious to know the “ism” that  underlines a political system. All the people are concerned about is whether the political system allows them to vote in a free, fair and violent-free manner; whether the system allows their vote to count; whether those elected will be sensitive to the feelings and yearnings of the ordinary people; whether those in governance will fulfill the public good, and be guided by the principles of justice, social equality and social responsibility. The people are keen to know whether a political system is able to meet their daily need for fertilizer, food, shelter,  transport, electricity and portable water, primary and secondary health. The people are keen to know whether they can have access to micro-finance credit, and whether their cooperatives can be sustained. The people want to know whether local government councils can truly be turned into engines of growth and development at the local and community levels.

Finally, the ordinary people of Nigeria nay Africa want political systems that can be truly participatory and inclusive. Such that everybody can claim ownership: women, youth and men, alike. Here, everybody irrespective of creed, gender and ideology can freely be represented, make input and have impact. Such is the kind of political system that ordinary Nigerians want. To create such a system we must proceed with a bottom-top approach. All we have done  consistently since 1976, with the inauguration of the CDC, was to use the Top-Bottom approach. We ask for memorandum, draft a document and then seek a smaller group-some elected and others appointed to debate and approve the document which then goes to the government for final approval. This approach is too elitist, regimentally and alienating to say the least. A proper approach must begin with neutrality and objectivity and not with biases and prejudices of the elite as it is often contained in Draft constitutional reports. To answer the simple question: what do the ordinary people want? All we need to do is to allow the people to tell their stories. Not stories told in state capitals, not stories told in security protected Government secretariats, but we need to hear the stories of the ordinary people and receive their memos and transcripts in local dialects, we need to go to all the rural areas where majority of our people live to hear their stories about  what kind of political system they need. Not to do so is to exclude and alienate majority of our people.

The first form of democracy starts with listening to others  even when you disagree with them. In this way we can have a healthy conversation and  cultivate a spirit of tolerance. The bane of this country is that the elite prefer to listen to their own voices, believing the voices of the majority poor is inferior, inconsequential, irritating and irrelevant. That whatever the poor have to say is best captured in the voices of the urbanites, the educated elite and so on. There is need for a fundamental change in our mindset. We must respect the voices of the ordinary people, they have a lot to offer. We have failed so far because in all of our history, we have been (mis)led by the voices of the educated elite and the mainstream politicians. We must listen to the voice of the ordinary people, the ruralites, women and youth too.

Let us  therefore go back to the drawing board and change our methodology  of political work and stereotypes against  the ruralites, the uneducated and the marginals. We need to recognize that these people are also citizens whose rights are guaranteed by the constitution  and in whatever we do their voices must be heard, and their voices should count. This is the true meaning of political presentation and inclusiveness. Our key challenge in Africa today is how to create political systems where the voices of the marginals will be brought- back-in; political systems that will ensure true empowerment and representation. I aver that such political systems can emerge not merely by regurgitating the Westminster or US Presidential system but by re-learning from our cultural history and by making the ordinary people the real agents and actors in  process of constructing  any political system. Anything short of that is a return to the old order and it will land us in the same musical chairs, with yoyo effect.

Be assured that Nigerians no longer have patience for any imported western orthodoxy without formatting them to our own standard and value systems, because twice they have been disappointed. If we are all agreed that politics is not and should not be played within the confines of the proverbial Eastonian Black box (named after the famous American Political Scientist, David Easton, author of the “input and output” model) then we need to delimit the terrain of politics. What I have done in this piece is to delimit that terrain and suggest a broader framework for playing an inclusive politics that makes our outcomes just, inclusive, legitimating and enduring.

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